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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 3

Operating Systems

Series: Mac, PC, or Both: Choices for Blind and Visually Impaired Computer Users

Part I

Since I am an iPhone user and love VoiceOver, Apple's onboard screen reader, I decided to get a MacBook when it was time for me to get a new laptop. As it turned out, I had a lot to learn, the first being that MacBooks are very expensive compared to laptops running Windows 8. Since I knew I either had to learn Windows 8 or Apple's Mountain Lion, I went for the Mac. Along with learning Mountain Lion, I needed to learn many new VoiceOver commands. This article, the first in a series about transitioning from a PC to a MacBook, discusses the comparison between the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air, provides information about putting Windows on a Mac, and rounds out with some VoiceOver basics and resources.

Making the Decision

Since I wasn't concerned about graphics, video editing, or screen size, I purchased an 11-inch MacBook Air, but people who have higher levels of usable vision might choose to purchase a computer with a bigger screen and a better display. I did significantly upgrade my MacBook's components, including choosing a faster processor and more memory. I still have my desktop computer, which allowed me the luxury of taking my time in learning the Mac.

Windows on a Mac

It is possible to run Windows on a Mac computer. To do this, you need a copy of Windows, such as XP, 7, or 8, and you need a screen reader since VoiceOver does not work with Windows. There are two ways of putting Windows on a Mac. One way is to use a program called Boot Camp. This program will partition the Mac's drive so that one part will continue to use the Mac platform and the other will use Windows. In other words, instead of one computer, you now have a Windows-based computer and a Mac computer. The disadvantage of this method is that each time you log in, you must choose between Mac or Windows. If you're working on the Mac and want to do something in Windows, the computer must be rebooted, and Windows needs to be chosen at the log in screen. There is no way to go back and forth between the two operating systems without rebooting.

The other way is to create a virtual machine on your Mac, which is a simulation of an operating system running on a different host operating system.

There are two programs that can create a virtual machine: Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware Fusion. VMware Fusion has better accessibility. With the VM option, it is possible to switch operating systems without rebooting, allowing Windows programs to be launched from within the Mac system.

Since the Mac keyboard does not contain a "Delete" key, "Insert" key, and some others, some keyboard remapping may need to be done in order to use the Windows screen reader's hot keys. One remapping program is Sharp Keys. Fortunately, on the Mac keyboard, the "Command" key, which is to the left of the space bar, acts as the "Windows"key. The "Option" key (next to the "Command" key on the Mac) functions as the "Alt" key in Windows. The "Control" key (next to the "Options" key on the Mac) functions as the same key in Windows.

I chose to use VMware software, and although it is accessible, I decided to take advantage of sighted assistance.

Whenever a Windows-based program is launched, it will take a while for Windows to open. A sound will play, and the Windows screen reader should start talking. When you are done with Windows, be sure to log out of Windows before closing VMware Fusion. I did not know this at first and had problems getting Windows to work. A Windows application can be launched from within the Mac operating system without opening VMware Fusion first. When the Windows app is launched, VMware Fusion will automatically open and, then, the actual Windows application should open.

I decided to install Windows on my MacBook because, at present, Microsoft Office applications (such as Word and Excel) are more accessible in Windows. There is a version of Microsoft Office for the Mac, but unfortunately, it currently is not accessible. Apple makes a similar suite of applications called iWork. This consists of a word processing application called Pages, a spread sheet application called Numbers, and an application called Key Note, which is similar to PowerPoint. However, they do not have the same accessibility as Office for Windows.

Since I am new to the Mac, I wanted the option to use familiar programs, but in the near future, I do intend to learn Pages and Numbers.

Comparing the Two MacBook Options

Apple offers two styles of notebooks, the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. Both are available in different sizes and can be customized with regard to the size of the unit's flash storage or hard drive, the type of processor, and the amount of memory. For a detailed description of these notebooks, visit the Apple notebook comparison page.

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air comes in11-inch and 13-inch sizes. The 11-inch weighs 2.38 pounds, and the 13-inch weighs 2.96 pounds. According to Apple's website, the battery on the 11-inch Air lasts up to five hours using wireless Web and the 13-inch up to seven hours using wireless Web. The Apple Store salesperson who assisted me explained that the battery is larger in the 13-inch model. Only the 13-inch has an SD card slot. Neither computer has a CD-ROM drive, but both can use a USB portable drive. The portable CD-ROM drive does not have to be purchased at the Apple store and is usually cheaper elsewhere. The MacBook Air uses a solid-state drive. The solid-state drive has no moving parts like a standard hard drive. This makes the computer boot quicker, and the drive is less susceptible to damage.

The 11-inch MacBook Air starts at $999, and the 13-inch starts at $1,199.

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro comes in 13-inch and 15-inch sizes. The 13-inch weighs 4.5 pounds, and the 15-inch weighs 5.6 pounds. Both have batteries that provide up to seven hours of wireless Web. Both computers come equipped with a CD-ROM drive and an SD card reader. The MacBook Pros can come with either a standard hard drive or a solid-state drive. The 13-inch model starts at $1,199, and the 15-inch starts at $1,799.

VoiceOver on the MacBooks

VoiceOver comes standard on all iOS devices as well as on all Mac computers. To activate VoiceOver on a Mac, type Command + F5. This is a toggle, so typing the combination again will turn VoiceOver off. On iOS devices, VoiceOver is controlled through a series of gestures. On Mac computers, keyboard commands control VoiceOver and some functions can be controlled through gestures on the unit's trackpad. By default, the trackpad is set to function as a mouse pad, but this is easily changed so VoiceOver gestures can be used. Gestures are especially useful when navigating webpages.

VoiceOver Navigation

For most VoiceOver commands, the VoiceOver keys "Control" and "Option" need to be held down along with other keys to execute a command. Windows screen readers tend to require fewer keys to execute the same command. For example, in Windows, typing the "Alt" key will bring up the Menu Bar. On a Mac, the key combination is Control + Option + M. Both types of computers have standard menu bars with the MacBooks having an Apple menu and an application specific menu to the left of the standard menu. There is a quick start tutorial for VoiceOver activated by typing Option + Control + Command + F8 on the computer, but it just covers the basics. There is a Quick Nav function on Macs that allows for navigation using just the arrow keys. To engage this feature, hold down the left and right arrows simultaneously. To turn Quick Nav off, use the same command. To activate the trackpad to use VoiceOver, hold down the VoiceOver keys and do a two finger twist to the right.

An excellent way to learn how to use VoiceOver on the Mac is to listen to a series of podcast tutorials recorded by David Woodbridge of Vision Australia. They can be found on the AppleVis website. When the page loads, there are check boxes to sort the podcasts. Check the "Mac OS" box and activate the "Apply" button.

Get some Hands-On Experience

Before going to the Apple store, try to ask someone who has a MacBook if you can spend some time using it. If you do not have access to a MacBook, call the Apple store and try to arrange some time to check out their MacBooks. Be aware that the sales people might not know very much about VoiceOver. If possible, try following the instructions in David Woodbridge's podcasts when trying a Mac. I found them very helpful, and I still refer back to them.

If you are new to a notebook, laptop, or netbook, be aware there is no six pack (the group of six keys towards the middle with "Insert," "Home," "Page Up," "Delete," "End," and "Page Down"), and many, including the Macs, do not have numeric keypads.

When the MacBook Boots

MacBooks take only a few seconds to boot, especially those with solid-state drives. The desktop on a MacBook is very different from the Windows desktop. The Windows desktop has frequently used programs on the desktop while the MacBook has the contents of the unit's solid-state or hard drive on the desktop. VoiceOver will say "Macintosh HD" even if the MacBook has a solid-state drive. Typing Control + Option + Space Bar at the Desktop will bring up a table of folders, including the System folder and the Applications folder. Any flash drive or other medium plugged into the MacBook will also show up on the Desktop. The only item I have added to my Desktop is my Documents folder. Other programs (which Apple calls apps) can be added, but they are usually kept on the Dock. The Dock is at the bottom of the screen, just like on the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, however, there doesn't appear to be any limit to how many apps can be added to the Dock. The Dock is basically for applications that are used frequently.

After the Purchase

When purchasing a MacBook from the Apple store, you can ask to have the technicians set up your e-mail at no additional charge. Be sure to have your e-mail account password with you, and you will need to have an Apple ID If you do not already have one, the technicians can assist with that. The password from the Apple ID will also be the computer's password.


I am very happy with my MacBook Air. It's very fast and light, set up was easy, and it was great to have a computer that spoke right out of the box. Having Windows 7 and Window-Eyes 8.0 on my Mac gives me the freedom to use Microsoft Word and Excel. In the second article of the series, I will discuss my adventures and misadventures as I learned to use my MacBook Air with VoiceOver.


There are many wonderful people on the web and on e-mail lists who are more than willing to offer advice and explain how to accomplish tasks on the Mac. Here are a few resources:

This is a community of Apple product users who are blind or visually impaired. If you are using any Apple device, it is well worth visiting this excellent website.

Mac Access.net
This website has e-mail lists, podcasts, and more.

Mac for the Blind
This website contains a wealth of information for Mac users who are blind or visually impaired.

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